LICENSE TO THRILL? #20: Wheelman (2009)

Vin Diesel lends his likeness to this largely forgotten driving game. 

Who made it?: Midway Newcastle/Tigon Studios (Developers), Midway Games/Ubisoft (Publishers).

Genre: Action-Adventure/Driving.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC.

Format: Blu-ray disc, DVD, Download.

Released: March 27, 2009 (UK).

Playing the waiting game can be a real son-of-a-bitch. Upon viewing the teaser trailer for Wheelman back in 2007 – as part of Stranglehold‘s supplemental features – my interest was immediately piqued. I knew absolutely nothing about the game in question; only that it looked so unabashedly over-the-top (in a good way), and also had likeness and voice work from The Fast and the Furious star Vin Diesel. A year-and-a-half later and Wheelman finally saw a simultaneous release on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. As I said, waiting can be a son-of-a-bitch, and I longed for this for what seemed like an eternity. Every piece of gameplay footage and every screenshot I viewed after that initial video had me frothing at the mouth. Call me shallow, but Wheelman was a game that I felt held so much unseen potential that I was utterly shocked to find that literally no one else but me was awaiting its arrival.

After Midway made seemingly rock-solid plans to release the game during 2008’s third quarter, a looming bankruptcy put that idea to a screeching halt. Several delays and a new publisher later, Wheelman was released to mixed reviews and little fanfare. Some called it a half-arsed GTA clone, whilst others were a bit kinder and gave the game its due credit for not only jacking GTA‘s ideals, but also for having the ferocity of your average Burnout sequel. There’s also the high-impact tradition of Midtown Madness and the PS2’s popular Pursuit Force series.

To be completely honest, Wheelman is all of those things. There is very little story to speak of, so if you were expecting Shakespearean dialogue and characters to rival GTA IV, you’ve got another thing coming. Wheelman‘s primary focus is on elongated action sequences and over-the-top car combat. Missions are plentiful, variety is omnipresent, and even with a half-baked story and shoddy voice-acting, this is a game that needn’t rely on those kinds of things to get by. It does just fine by being the fast-paced driver/shooter it always alluded to. And as a straightforward action game, Wheelman delivers in spades. Truth be told, the game can be rather repetitive in that when Diesel’s character, Milo Burik, isn’t driving around and smashing the living shit out of anything in sight, he is performing on-foot missions that fit firmly into the free-roam genre’s well-worn archetype.

The meat and potatoes of the game, however, are definitely the driving segments and, thankfully, you will be in a car for about 85% of the game. Taking into consideration all of the cool maneuvers you can execute when in a vehicle, the on-foot portions of Wheelman seem rather unimaginative. There is no cover system and you can’t even jump. At least there is a decent lock-on feature implemented and a good amount of weaponry at Milo’s disposal. As far as the car combat is concerned, Milo is able to use the vehicle itself as a weapon. “Vehicle melee,” as it’s called, allows Milo to use the car as a battering ram of sorts, either flinging it left, right or straight ahead. Inflicting enough damage to enemy vehicles with these melee attacks will result in a cool cinematic showing the car/bike flying about with passengers accompanying it and exploding in mid-air. Other unique abilities at Milo’s disposal are the Aimed Shot, Cyclone, and Airjack, respectively, Being able to slow down time and fine-aim with the Aimed Shot for an “instant kill” feels downright rewarding, as do the abilities to either spin your car around 180-degrees and shoot in slow-motion (Cyclone), or even Airjack a vehicle adjacent to Milo’s. His latter ability, the Airjack, is one big way in which Wheelman keeps the vehicular segments fast, exciting and consistent. Instead of having to get out of your car and walk to another when your ride is showing signs of damage, simply line up your car with another and hold Circle until the indicative reticule turns green, then release. This will then show Milo crawl out of the driver-side window and onto the hood of his car, then jump onto the one you have selected, crawl through their passenger-side window, kick the driver out, and take control of the vehicle. The animation is so fluid and the action itself is so simple that it remains one of the most compelling – not to mention coolest – aspects of the game.

But even with fantastic mission design and varied objectives – including everything from driving a flat-bed truck stashed with porn DVDs and other assorted hot items through town whilst being chased by a rival gang, to flying through oncoming traffic and jumping over ramps – Wheelman isn’t perfect. Developers Midway Newcastle kept the game so arcade-like in style that a lot of those unforgivable annoyances from games past rear their ugly heads. We’re talking hundreds of re-spawning enemies, artificially sped-up enemy vehicles, and enemy NPCs that are crack shots. Its not so much a difficult game but a frustratingly cheap one; some ultimately fun missions are bogged-down due to seriously inefficient AI and cheapskate enemy accuracy. As noted, Wheelman isn’t a top-tier title graphically, either.

This particular incarnation of Epic’s UnrealEngine3 looks to be the same one put to use in 2007’s Stranglehold which, even then, wasn’t the best-looking game around. Blurry textures are a constant in Midway’s usage of the acclaimed graphics engine and Wheelman, though sporting a surprisingly realistic likeness of Mr. Diesel, is visually laughable in this day and age. There are countless foggy textures, clipping shadows, poor animations, jaggies, an abundance of low-res textures, and an overall lack of refinement. Its not an ugly game, though, as the art direction is top-notch and Diesel’s character model looks shockingly uncanny, but everything else surrounding him is disappointingly last-gen.

While it has been compared to GTA by nearly every reviewing site since its release, that conclusion couldn’t be further from the truth. An open-world driving game? Yes. But it puts more focus on ferocity and simplicity rather than the life management that GTA has been incorporating as of late. There are even mid-mission checkpoints present in Wheelman, the ability to move directly to the mission start instead of driving to it, and a firm emphasis on driving (as opposed to on-foot combat) and vehicular stunts. Not the most refined game, to be sure, but it is a damn entertaining one and certainly worth the Bargain Bin price tag.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • In the demo, Milo’s license plate says MRTL KM8T which is a reference to Mortal Kombat, Midway’s popular fighting game.
  • Simultaneously with the announcement of the video game in February 2006, a film adaptation was brought up with Vin Diesel in the lead role and Rich Wilkes, who worked with Diesel on xXx (2002), was hired to write the script. Paramount Pictures and MTV Films were announced to collaborate on the project. Naturally, it never came to be. 
  • The game was partly developed by Diesel’s own Tigon Studios, who also produced the critically acclaimed Chronicles of Riddick tie-ins.

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